Old taverns are a dime a dozen in Chicago, but revamps as polished as the Queen Mary Tavern are rare. The former Polish dive on West Division Street sat shuttered and untouched for 40 years after closing in 1975, until Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner (Sportsman’s Club, Lone Wolf, Revel Room) took over the space from owner Mary Kafka. Named for the 93-year-old “Queen of Division Street,” the bar opened last fall with a theme driven by British maritime drinking culture. “The original idea of a maritime connection came to Matt and Kevin both from the idea of naming the bar Queen Mary—the Queen Mary is a well-known ocean liner—and also the fact that with all of the existing wood and the long lines of the interior, it already had sort of a ship’s cabin aesthetic,” says general manager Dan Smith (formerly of Barrelhouse Flat).
The bar is now a destination for well-made cocktails with a cozy neighborhood-tavern feel. The design largely drew upon existing elements, such as the original backbar, bar counter, beer cooler (now a kitchen) and much of the woodwork from the original space. The crew embellished accordingly, carving out tall booths for privacy and adding long wooden ceiling slats to make the room feel more intimate. Smaller details like mermaid coat hooks, antique liquor bottles and a subtle lighting scheme seal the deal, without allowing the theme to feel imposing or gimmicky.
Out of the design emerged a cocktail menu centered on British maritime drinking traditions. Smith and the bar team (which includes Mony Bunni, formerly of Sable Kitchen & Bar) looked toward navy-strength gin and rum, the exotic flavors of the spice trade, and an array of fortified wines. “All of those ingredients have a shared history and maritime connection, all of which felt like they really belonged together,” says Smith. Drinks like the Navy-Strength Martini and Navy-Strength Old Fashioned (which features a split of rum and gin instead of whiskey) are staples on the menu, which will otherwise change seasonally. Other highlights include the Admiralty cocktail, which is modeled after the Gimlet, and the Navy Grog, which changes daily.
The bar has quickly become a neighborhood mainstay, already establishing a group of regulars and, most importantly, approval from Kafka. “Mary comes by every day,” Smith says. “She doesn’t drink, but she checks in on us to make sure everything is alright and that we mind our P’s and Q’s.”